Year A; Christmas Eve; 12.24.2019
Luke 2:1-20; Luke 15:32
In the courtyard of Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina stands a bronze sculpture of three men. One man is on his knees, his head nestled against a short, standing, elderly man, arms around his waist. The short elderly man has his left hand gently holding on to the kneeling man’s back.
The older man is looking up at a tall, standing man. That man has his arms folded across his chest and he is angrily looking away. The right hand of the older man reaches out this way and is gently touching the folded arms with a sad and plaintive look on his face. You can see with his outstretched arms touching each man that he desires to be the “glue”, the binding agent for uniting the two men.
The sculpture is by Margaret Adams Parker and is based on Luke, Chapter 15 verse 32, “…he was lost and has been found.” The title of the sculpture is “Reconciliation” and the story is one of Jesus’ most famous parables, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.”
Tonight, we gather for this once-a-year high holy celebration and hear the story in Luke’s gospel, Chapter 2, 13 chapters prior to Jesus telling the story of the Prodigal Son. The story of the Nativity in Luke’s gospel treats us to the joyful announcement of the Heavenly Host to the shepherds, sleepily tending their sheep. The announcement that something great has been introduced into this world, and that something great is “good news for ALL people.” ALL PEOPLE…A Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, born of human flesh, is a baby lying in a bunch of straw and wrapped in rough woven linen, flanked by his mother and earthly father.
The great news of the Heavenly Host is this: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL THE PEOPLE….” In the inclusive character of Luke’s gospel, “all the people” really does mean “all the people.” And that good news of great joy is the love of God breaking into the flesh and being the reconciling force for a sinful, broken, idolatrous and sorrowful world. A world God declared as “Good.” A world that God had such hopes for. And a world GOD NEVER GIVES UP ON.
You could say that the title for tonight’s Nativity story is “Reconciliation.” God so loved the world that he gave his only Son – to reconcile us to him.”
I’m sure God reads the newspaper and watches cable TV news, really. So, I imagine that sometimes being updated on the world news, God is tempted to just say, “Why can’t they all just get along? Why can’t elected officials find common ground and really serve the people? Why can’t the people give proper honor and care for this magnificent planet that I created? Why can’t those two brothers – any two brothers – get along, find forgiveness and love in their hearts and reconcile their differences?”
God might be tempted from time to time to abandon us and this earth. But our celebration tonight is proof that instead of abandoning us, God entered more deeply and fully into life WITH us. God came in the flesh to show us how to live, to love and to forgive. God longs to dwell among us on earth in Jesus Christ his Son. And we long to be close to God praying that God’s dwelling will be in our hearts.
One of my very favorite Advent hymns is one of Charles Wesley’s best, “Come, thou long-expected Jesus…”It is an acknowledgement that we do long for him and wait in expectation for him to be with us.
“Come, thou long-expected Jesus; born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.”
We desire deeply to be set free from our fears and sins; we long to rest in the love and release of being reconciled to God. To put OUR arms around God’s waist, rest our weary heads on God’s chest and sink into God’s absolute love for us. There really is no better prayer for us tonight than this, “Let us find our rest in you…”
Our rest is in God’s love and forgiveness. We might be the angry, prideful, judging brother of the parable who struggles to have a forgiving heart. I tend to be like that brother. Or we might be the squandering brother who greedily and recklessly asked for his inheritance early and spent it all on sinful behavior. And yet we are held together by the promise of God reaching out to each of us in Jesus God’s Son, who pulls us into his bosom, his heart – drawing us together with his arms of love.
And those arms of love reach out to every one of us from the cross. One of our most familiar prayers in the prayer book is one of the all-embracing love of Jesus on the cross:
“Lord, Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone EVERYONE, might come within the reach of your saving embrace…”
That “saving embrace” is for everyone. The Heavenly Host knows that the saving embrace is the essential good news of the Savior’s birth. And we are to pass it on as loving, forgiving, reconciling people.
OK, I’m going into “teaching mode” right now. Our Episcopal prayer book teaches that reconciliation is foundational to all we do in our lives.
If you look on page 855 in that red book in front of you, the Book of Common Prayer, you will find our Christian “marching orders”! If you want to know what Episcopalians believe, you can read the “Outline of Faith” or some people call it the catechism. On page 855 it says, “Our ministry…is to represent Christ and his Church;” Really, it says this and so it must be something we are able to do with God’s help. It also says, “…to bear witness to him wherever [we] may be and AND according to the gifts given to [US], to carry on Christ’s work of RECONCILIATION in the world…” As Christ’s reconciling love lives in our hearts, we are to pass it on to others in this world. We are to be the reconcilers. PERIOD. And Jesus showed us how.
Like the father in the “Reconciliation” sculpture, God holds out God’s arms in both directions to us all with a plaintive, yet fierce desire to connect us to him and to each other. He. Will. Never. Let. Us. Go.
And our response tonight is to invite Christ into our hearts and rule in us for the sake of love and reconciliation.
“By thine own eternal Spirit, rule in all our hearts alone; By thine all-sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.”